After 25 years, Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive are still working to democratize knowledge

Brewster Kahle has been at this a long time.

Consider the photo above evidence. (And yes, children, computer monitors were once the size of a mini-fridge.) It was taken by internet legend (and open records hero) Carl Malamud in December 1991, when he was reporting out what would become Exploring the Internet: A Technical Travelogue, which aimed to put some faces to the burbling sense that something exciting was happening with connected computers.

These were still early days online — only four months after Tim Berners-Lee mentioned his “WorldWideWeb” project for the first time in the newsgroup alt.hypertext. The first version of Netscape was still three years away. And there was Kahle, just 31, but already with a stuffed resume: researcher at MIT’s AI Lab, lead engineer at supercomputer maker Thinking Machines, lead developer of WAIS (Wide Area Information Server), something like an alpha version of what the web would become.

“After delving into the arcana of message-passing protocols for massively parallel processors,” Malamud wrote, “Brewster turned his attention to the much more difficult problem of finding and using information on networks.”

In 1996, Kahle founded the Internet Archive, which stands alongside Wikipedia as one of the great not-for-profit knowledge-enhancing creations of modern digital technology. You may know it best for the Wayback Machine, its now quarter-century-old tool for deriving some sort of permanent record out of the inherently transient medium of the web. (It’s collected 668 billion web pages so far.) But its ambitions extend far beyond that, creating a free-to-all library of 38 million books and documents, 14 million audio recordings, 7 million videos, and more. (Malamud’s book is, of course, among them.)

That work has not been without controversy, but it’s an enormous public service — not least to journalists, who rely on it for reporting every day. (Not to mention the Wayback Machine is often the only place to find the first two decades of web-based journalism, most of which has been wiped away from its original URLs.)

A little while back, the Internet Archive celebrated its 25th birthday, and I used that as an excuse to chat with Kahle about how his vision for it had changed along with the internet it tries to preserve in amber — and about why there is still so much human knowledge locked away on microfilm. Here are some bits of our conversation, lightly edited to make me sound more coherent on Zoom calls.

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